“I am not a conventionally trained conductor. A western classical conductor is supposed to know five to six European languages and study orchestration. When I conduct a choir, it is a spiritual exercise; my offering to God.
I have been singing in a choir since 1978. I grew up on Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Eagles, Jim Reeves and of course, country music. I was mostly into gospel rock and collaborated with Stephen Devassy for a short while.
But a crisis in leadership at the St. Paul’s Marthoma Church choir made me a conductor. I am still one of its main conductors. I have also conducted for choirs in schools and colleges. I once conducted for a nuns’ choir — a very different experience. For the centenary of Malabar Christian College, I conducted a choir of 100 and drew in from different genres of music, including slogans and chants. I was told that students found it tough to shake off its impact.
I formed the 36-member choir Gharana in 2011. It draws singers from different churches and also from other religions. Usually, the church choir is active only from October to December, in time for Christmas. Our main season is from June to September. There also came a point when church choirs were finding it hard to get singers for the four different parts in a choir — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. I made a choir, drawing in from different sources, so that there is no scarcity of voices.
A choir usually sticks to Western classical. But we celebrate diversity in our music. At every concert we have classical pieces for sure — Vivaldi, Mozart and Haydn. But we also sing Indian, raga-based semi-classical music. Then we play the modern, rhythmic pop pieces, a la “Top of the World.” Jazz and Gospel too finds a place, so too Hindi and Tamil songs and Malayalam devotional. No music is untouched; we want to draw the choir from the inside of a church to the common man.
I agree there was a time when choir music was dull. It pushed away even the religious. A choir should have variety. We should connect with youngsters and draw them to it. Kerala, especially, is so rich in rhythm instruments. So if a choir sings without tempo or rhythm, no one is going to listen.
A choir ideally celebrates unity in diversity. Each singer finds the range he/she is comfortable in and contributes. For a major part, they are listening and enjoying three different kinds of music and then contributing theirs to it. That, to me, is the best music therapy. Every song has a soul. The job of a conductor is to find that soul and translate it to the singers, only then can the singer touch the listener with his/her music. I spend a lot of time on voice training. I am a diction fanatic. You never get the right blend or harmony in music if the diction of singers is not spot-on. Often, the diction goes for a toss in choral music and at times people ask what language the choir was singing in!
We practise at my house with the singers of each part coming twice a week to rehearse. Rehearsals are in the evening as all of us have our day job. I work with the All India Radio. Once we learn a song, all the singers get together to work together. That coming together is like dum-cooking, where different parts are put in a pot, sealed and cooked till it becomes organic. Over the years we have built a repertoire of songs.”
(A column on the men and women who make Kozhikode what it is.)